Manchester United may have found an ideal partner for Ruud Van Nistelrooy in Louis Saha but Sir Alex Ferguson may yet have cause to regret not also investing in a central defender during the recent transfer window after watching his side escape from squandering a three-goal lead yesterday. Each of Everton's second half goals resulted from United's failure to deal with set-piece crosses and betrayed a defence with a soft centre.
Two goals from Saha either side of Van Nistelrooy's 100th goal for United had given them a seemingly unassailable advantage by half time. But in this, the week of the comeback, Everton staged a remarkable revival with second-half goals from David Unsworth, a John O'Shea own goal, and Kevin Kilbane - all three headers. But just when it seemed the Merseyside club had earned a point, that man Van Nistelrooy met Cristiano Ronaldo's precise 89th- minute cross to win the match.
The result was the same as at White Hart Lane in midweek, the away team's late winner proving the decisive goal in seven, but this time the dream comeback was thwarted as United maintained the pressure on Arsenal at the top of the Premiership. "It was a problem every time they put the ball into the penalty area," said Ferguson. "In the last few weeks the defence has become a real worry for us."
The return of Ryan Giggs yesterday freed Paul Scholes to move in-field to partner Roy Keane at the expense of Phil Neville. Now that Saha has arrived to partner Van Nistelrooy, who has frequently been asked to lead the line on his own this season, Ferguson has adjusted his tactics. Presuming the long-term intention is to play the two together, United now have three successive home games in which to perfect the new system before the Champions' League resumes and they travel to Portugal to face Porto. Playing their second game in tandem since Saha's arrival, their burgeoning partnership has already yielded six goals.
For all of David Moyes' declarations of satisfaction at his team's recent form, four defeats and three draws since beating Norwich City is hardly inspiring. Just 13 goals in 16 League games before yesterday tells its own story, but on this occasion it was their defending that let them down.
Van Nistelrooy should have scored within three minutes - not that he had much longer to wait. A trademark precise, low strike from Scholes rebounded off the post but the Dutch striker, could only redirect the ball over the bar from eight yards.
Saha made no such mistake minutes later. Mikaël Silvestre's long, straight ball over the top gave him ample opportunity to race clear of Everton's ponderous defence before an emphatic finish did little to enhance Nigel Martyn's 600th League appearance. The goalkeeper was similarly exposed midway through the first half when Van Nistelrooy reacted quickest to reach a loose ball and beat him from close range.
With less than half an hour gone, Saha had his second and the game was as good as over - or so it seemed. Scholes found the French striker alone on the corner of the penalty area and his low finish was as clinical as it was predictable. But for astonishing misses from Saha and Van Nistelrooy when clean through, United would have been five up by the break. On each occasion the away support feigned derision. It was that sort of a game. Long before half-time, Ferguson was waving to the same fans as a brief snow storm continued the rather bizarre afternoon.
Moyes aimed to stem the flow - he had to do something - by introducing all three substitutes at half-time including Wayne Rooney. "I could have taken off any of the players at half-time," said Moyes. "We didn't defend well in the first half but Manchester United played some tremendous stuff. But it was too easy for them. I felt the players had to show that they cared - and they did that."
His team immediately pulled a goal back within minutes of the restart. Gary Naysmith's corner was flicked on by Duncan Ferguson for Unsworth to head in. The champions' defence hardly looked impervious and Rooney forced Tim Howard into two good saves.
From the second of these, another Everton corner resulted in a goal. This time O'Shea got the decisive touch. Everton's famous comeback appearedcompleted by Kilbane. Yet again the source was a cross - for the third time in half an hour, United had failed to deal with it.
"Everton were fantastic after the break," said Ferguson. "Our first-half performance was as good as any in years away from home but full marks to David Moyes. They gave us all sorts of problems. I've never let a three-goal lead slip in my managerial career so I was delighted by Ronaldo's fantastic cross for the winner.''
Unsworth 49, O'Shea og 65, Kilbane 75
Manchester United 4
Saha 9, 29, Van Nistelrooy 24, 89
Half-time: 0-3 Attendance: 40,190